School’s out, Memorial Day weekend is here and summer has unofficially begun. For outdoorsy metro Atlantans, the big event of the hotter months is the AJC Peachtree Road Race. But in the 1970s, there was another way to have fun in the sun with swarms of people.

The world’s largest 10K happens every July 4 and people from all over the world join the fun. An estimated 150,000 spectators turn out to watch 60,000 participants make their way down the 6.2-mile course down Peachtree Road from Lenox to Piedmont Park.

The road race started in 1970, but one year earlier Atlanta became home to another, decidedly less health-conscious, bash. Whereas the Peachtree developed into a race with a party included, the Chattahoochee Raft Race quickly turned into a party with a race thrown in.

The Chattahoochee Raft Race (also known as the Ramblin’ Raft Race) started with about 50 participants floating 29 miles down the Hooch from Buford Dam to Flat Shoals. The next race was considerably shorter, a 9.2-mile jaunt starting at Morgan Falls north of Sandy Springs and ending below U.S. 41 in Cobb County.

May 1978: Coeds from Florida State University, members of Delta Gamma sorority, take it easy with their friends at Powers Ferry Landing during the Chattahoochee Raft Race.

Credit: Bill Mahan / AJC File

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Credit: Bill Mahan / AJC File

While the race route may have gotten smaller, participation, both in the water and along the river, grew massively. Too quickly and too soon, some believed, based on the trash left behind.

An Atlanta Journal staff editorial published May 26, 1971, pointed out that many rafters were slobs while floating some new ideas. “Too many entered and too many irresponsibly walked away leaving their clutter in and along the river.

“Next year? Fewer entries, tighter restrictions and maybe cash bonds to guarantee that those who come for the fun stick around to help clean up,” the editorial ended.

The paper’s 1972 editorial noted that many of those suggestions would be implemented in that year’s coming race. Restrictions on entries, $100 clean-up bonds and the banning of wooden “makeshifts… match stick contraptions” got the thumbs-up.

“Last year’s race had 4,700 entries and 20,000 spectators,” the Journal said. “But the restrictions are going to make it a more orderly process and help prevent the public outcry at the mess left behind.”

They didn’t.

After the 1978 race, Journal readers wrote in to complain about how “the litter left behind marred an otherwise perfect outing” while suggesting clean-up parties might resolve things.

Rumblings of ending the rambling raft race, which dogged the event practically from the start, gained ground as the idea of the Chattahoochee becoming Atlanta’s late May trash pit, as well as the scene of unfettered drunken revelry, increasingly grated on the nerves of locals.

The Ramblin' Raft Race on the Chattahoochee River kicks off Memorial Day weekend in the 1970s.

Credit: STEVE DEAL/AJC 1970s

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Credit: STEVE DEAL/AJC 1970s

Journal columnist Ron Hudspeth was taken to task by readers when he said the race “atmosphere has always been: peace, brother.” Hudspeth printed some angry responses in his May 30, 1978 column.

“Everyone loves a party, myself included,” Tammie Cairns, a WSB Radio reporter who covered the previous year’s event, wrote, adding that she “saw thousands of young people, teenagers, drunk and mostly drugged at 9:30 in the morning.” Making a trip down the river in August 1977, Cairns noted “the ugly remains of the raft race were still visible — beer cans and wood left from rafts that had splintered apart.”

Squabbling over who should sponsor the event, along with the state Department of Natural Resources seeking legislation to effectively end what DNR Commissioner Joe Tanner dubbed the race’s “free-for-all party” scene, resulted in the 1980 event being the last. Around 300,000 people reportedly showed up to race in the river or revel along its banks.

In a May 30, 1980 column, Hudspeth deemed the Raft Race dead in the water.

“Pause for a moment of silence and pay last respects to the death of a giant,” he said. “It died before reaching its 12th birthday. At one time, it was a spirited, mellow youngster, a good-time Charlie in the best sense of the word. But in recent years, the giant had become a monster.

“The Chattahoochee River Festival, alias Ramblin’ Raft Race, is dead. Long live the Raft Race — in memory, that is.”


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